Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: Forbidden Planet (1956)

Forbidden Planet (1956) ****
Directed by: Fred M. Wilcox.
Written by: Cyril Hume based on a story by Irving Block and Allen Adler and The Tempest by William Shakespeare.
Starring: Walter Pidgeon (Dr. Edward Morbius), Anne Francis (Altaira 'Alta' Morbius), Leslie Nielsen (Commander J. J. Adams), Warren Stevens (Lt. 'Doc' Ostrow M.D.), Jack Kelly (Lt. Jerry Farman), Richard Anderson (Chief Quinn), Earl Holliman (Cook).

The best science fiction films are always a little deeper than their surfaces suggest. From Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), to Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to three different versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (from Don Siegal in 1956, Philip Kaufman in 1978 and Abel Ferrara in 1994), to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) to James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1998) to Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009), all of these films – and most of the other great sci-fi films in history – are about much more than their surface level. At their best, sci fi films allow filmmakers to explore our own world, even while looking into the future with plots involving robots, aliens and the future. Forbidden Planet (1956) belongs on the list alongside those films as well.

The plot seems like basic, B movie stuff. A group of astronauts are travelling through space to get to the planet Altar IV, where an exploratory party went 20 years earlier to set up a colony, and have not been heard from since. Led by the square jawed Commander JJ Adams (Leslie Nielsen), as they approach the planet, they get a radio transmission telling them not to land. They land anyway, and find that out of the original party, only Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his beautiful young daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) are still alive. They have set themselves up comfortably there, and Morbius has built them a service robot, appropriately named Robby the Robot, who the Commander and his men are in awe of – it’s well beyond anything they have on earth. Morbius tells his story of how soon after landing, violent deaths befell everyone the rest of the explorers – something that Morbius and his daughter were somehow immune to. Morbius warns them away from the planet, worrying that the same fate awaits them. But they refuse. They don’t quite trust Morbius, and know he is hiding something.

While the surface of Forbidden Planet seems to be classic, cheesy sci-fi stuff – long dead aliens, super intelligent robots, a mad scientist and a space crew – the film is actually much more complex, and intriguing than that. The film is loosely based on William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with Pidgeon’s Morbius stepping in for the alchemist Prospero, his daughter Altaira in for Miranda, Robby the Robot for the magical Ariel and the Commander substituting for the men who become stranded on Prospero’s island, who fall in love with their daughter. The film even has a drunken cook to try and provide the comic relief of Trinculo and Stephano (although, in my mind, it doesn’t work here – but then, it didn’t really work in The Tempest either). The unknown force on the island, that scares everyone, could even be read as Caliban, Prospero’s slave. Watching the film just a few months after seeing Julie Taymor’s underrated, feminist reimagining of Shakespeare’s final, this seemed very obvious to me, but I appreciated the way the movie used Shakespeare’s play, the Oedipal issues especially, and applied it to this futuristic story. This makes Forbidden Planet a deeper film than most B-grade sci fi from the 1950s – certainly one that after you know the secrets, can hold up to future viewings as you delve into the depths of the film.

Having said all of that, if you like B grade sci fi from the 1950s – and judging on how many of these films that I have never heard of have managed to come out on DVD over the years, there’s a lot of you – than Forbidden Planet works on that level as well. The special effects in the movie are primitive by today’s standards, and yet I was amazed by how well they have stood up over the years. In lots of movies from this era, you simply have to accept the poor special effects and move on, or there’s little point in watching the film, but in Forbidden Planet despite their inherent cheesiness, the special effects actually hold up quite well. James Cameron would be horrified by them, but in the context of the movie, they work. Even better than the visual effects though are the sound effects, especially that eerie, computer sounding “score” that plays throughout the movie, and gives the entire movie a creepy feel to it.

The performances mainly work as well. It took a few minutes for me to accept Leslie Nielson in a more serious role than he was known for, but it quickly won me over. It’s not a great performance or anything, but he does his job. I liked the beautiful Anne Francis as the sweetly innocent and na├»ve Altaira quite a bit. But from an acting point of view, the one great performance is by Walter Pidgeon as the Morbius. Yes, he has the best role, but unlike many movie stars, slumming it in sci fi later in their careers, Pidgeon never seems to hold himself above the material – he plays it just as it should be played – the right mix of vanity and insecurity, genius and hubris. After this movie, it was mainly supporting roles, TV work and other sci fi for Pidgeon, but in Morbius, he gives what could be the best performance of his career. The most famous character in the film though is inarguably Robby the Robot, a fascinating contraption, who like all intelligent movie robots, may or may not be trustworthy. His presence always causes unease in the movie.

The film was directed by Fred M. Wilcox, who is not a director well remembered today. Looking at the IMDB, he only has 11 directing credits including 3 Lassie movies. If you watch the supplements included on the excellent 50th Anniversary DVD, strangely no one really mentions him. So Forbidden Planet gives people like myself, you describe to the auteur theory, a problem because who after all is responsible for it? Alas, I have no idea, but that hardly matters. Forbidden Planet is a superb example of its genre – one of the best sci fi films from the 1950s, and one that holds up extremely well today. I for one shudder at the idea of a remake (or whatever the hell they are planning) that is supposed to come out next year.

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